He looked away and she caught something that looked remarkably like a stifled smile, although she couldn't be sure, because when he once again looked at her his face was serious.
âRobert has every confidence in your ability,' he told her. âAnd that's counted heavily in your favour. If it were up to me, I would say that a young, inexperienced woman would not come high on the list of people I would choose to handle this.'
I'm going to have to work fairly closely with this man if I get this job, Jessica thought grimly. I'm going to have to quell the urge to strangle him.
âWell,' she informed him with a cool little smile and a slight shrug, âthere's nothing more I can say to convince you that I'd do a good job. If you don't feel one hundred per cent confident of my abilities, then, of course, you must look elsewhere.'
The interview, as far as she was concerned, was finished, but she was deeply reluctant to stand up, just in case he ordered her to sit back down again.
He saved her the decision by standing up himself and moving around the desk towards her.
For a second she felt a recurrence of that vague, unspecified alarm that had wrong-footed her previously, then it subsided and she rose to her feet In her heels, she reached just to the level of his mouth, and she averted her eyes hurriedly because, almost unconsciously, her mind registered that it was a disconcertingly sensual mouth.
âI'm prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt, Miss Stearn,' he said, reaching out to shake her hand.
âAnd I'm flattered,' she replied, withdrawing her hand almost immediately, âespecially since I realise that it goes against your better judgement. I'll do a good job.'
âOh, I hope so,' he drawled, looking down at her, âfor both our sakes.'
âQuite.' She abandoned all attempts at smiling. Why bother? If he could be brutally frank with her, then she would be as brutally frank back, within reasonable limits.
âAnd I feel I should warn you that I'm intolerant of incompetence, especially when my reputation is at stake.'
âThanks for the warning. I'll bear it in mind.'
She watched as he walked towards the door, then as he was about to open it he turned and looked at her over his shoulder.
âYou're quite the hard nut, aren't you?' he said in a speculative voice.
Was he surprised? She supposed so. Quite unexpectedly, she had a vision of the sort of women he appreciated, and she could guarantee that not a single hard nut would be among them.
âI'm not about to agree or disagree with that, Mr Carr. You're entitled to your own opinion.'
He nodded, half smiled, and then closed the door behind him, and it was only then, as her body sagged, that she realised quite how much strain she had been under.
The news about Robert had come as a shock. He had seemed fit enough. Hadn't he? She frowned and tried to remember whether there had been any give-away signs of ill health. Then, uneasily, it crossed her mind that perhaps there had been and she had just failed to recognise them because she'd been so wrapped up in her work. Her concentration on her job was single-minded and complete, which, she acknowledged, was great when it came to climbing ladders and winning promotions, but there was a great big world out there and...was it passing her by?
No. Surely not. She had a successful, rewarding career. How could anything be passing her by? Every goal she had striven for had been achieved. She should feel nothing but satisfaction.
Of course, her love life was not exactly thrilling. In fact, it was positively non-existent at the moment. Her relationship with Greg had ended six months ago, which had been roughly its duration. She uncomfortably remembered his criticism of herâthat she had been obsessed with her career.
You're quite the hard nut, aren't you?
There's nothing wrong with wanting to be independent, she told herself fiercely. If her mother had been financially independent, she would have had the courage to leave the man who had made her life hell.
There's nothing wrong with me, she thought, and, if it's the last thing I do, I'll prove that I can take this case and win it.
ESSICA looked at her watch, stretched, and debated whether she should telephone Bruno Carr or not It was eight o'clock, she was still at work, and she needed information. If she was to win this case, she thought with a sense of self-righteous indignation, then he would have to be more available to answer questions. For the past week he had been abroad on business, and, however much information she could gather from various members of various departments, sooner or later he would have to avail himself.
She eyed the phone warily, as though fearing that it might metamorphose into something unpleasant at any moment, then, making her mind up, she dialled his direct work extension and was on the verge of hanging up when she heard his voice down the other end.
Irrationally, she felt a flutter of nerves.
âMr Carr? This is Jessica Steam here. I've been trying to reach you for the past week, but I gather you've been away on business.'
âWell, I'm glad you're back because there are one or two questions I need to ask you.' She shuffled some bits of paper in front of her, then began to doodle on her notepad.
âI think it might be better if this is done face to face. It's important that you familiarise yourself with every aspect of the case so that every question that's thrown at you on the stand can be dealt with.'
âIt wasn't my intention to go into the witness box unprepared,' he said dryly.
âPerhaps we could meet some time tomorrow?' she asked, glancing at her diary.
âWhy not now?'
âI take it you're still at work.'
âYes, I am, butâ'
âNo time like the present. Now, do you know the address of my office here?' He rattled it off, and she hurriedly scribbled it alongside her complicated doodle. âGet a cab. You'll get here quicker.'
She heard the flat hum of the dialling tone and stared at the receiver in her hand with an expression of stunned amazement. He'd hung up on her! He'd decided that now was as good a time to answer questions as any, and hadn't even had the common politeness to ask her what her plans for the evening might be!
Was he so used to getting his own way that he simply took it for granted that the rest of the human race would fall in with whatever he wanted?
She stood up, slipped on her jacket and coat, grabbed her handbag from the low, square table in the corner of her office and hurried out of the building.
The more she thought about his attitude, the more exasperated she became. She could very nearly convince herself that she had really had exciting plans for the evening, when in fact her plans had included no more than a quick, pre-prepared meal in front of the television, a few law articles she wanted to have a look at, and then bed.
Hardly heady stuff, she knew, but she had been working since eight-thirty in the morning, and a low-key evening was just what she felt she needed.
It didn't help that she had to trudge two blocks and wait fifteen minutes before she managed to hail a taxi. Thursday nights were always busy. Late-night shopping and the remnants of the January sales were enough to encourage even the laziest into the streets. She watched as taxi after taxi trundled past and was in a thoroughly foul temper by the time a vacant one pulled over to the side for her.
I need a long soak in a bath, she fumed silently to herself, staring out of the window at the bright lights and the people, hurrying along to minimise the length of time they spent in the cold. Her suit felt starched and uncomfortable, her make-up had almost vanished completely and she wanted to kick off her shoes and let her feet breathe.
His office block in the City was quite different from where she worked. Large, with a lot of opaque glass everywhere, and, when she entered, a profusion of plants strewn around an enormous reception area, in the centre of which the large, circular desk, manned by an elderly man in uniform, was a bit like an island adrift in the middle of an ocean.
A group of three men in suits was standing to one side, talking in low voices, and they glanced around automatically as she entered the building, but aside from them it was empty.
Because, she thought, everyone else has left to go home and relax, or else get dressed before stepping out to paint the town red.
Jessica couldn't remember the last time she had painted the town red. She had a sneaking suspicion that she had never painted it redâor any other colour, come to think of it.
During her more active moments, when she'd been involved with a man, few and far between though they had been, she had gone to the theatre or had meals out Somehow, she didn't think that that fell into the âRed Paint' category.
âMr Carr, please,' she said to the man behind the desk, now feeling gloomy in addition to exasperated and inconvenienced.
He lifted the receiver, spoke for a few seconds, and then nodded at her.
âMr Carr's expecting you,' he said, and she resisted the impulse to tell him that she knew that already, considering she had been summoned half an hour ago. âFourth floor, last office on the right. He said it'll be fine for you to make your own way up.'
âOh, grand!' Jessica said with a large, beaming smile. âThat must mean that he trusts me not to nick anything
She was standing outside his office door at a little after eight-thirty, quietly determined that she would stay no longer than half an hour. Long enough to brief him on the details of the case, find out his thoughts firsthand, and then anything more detailed could be arranged via their secretaries.
That way, she would be back at her apartment in North London by ten at the latest, just in time to catch the news, microwave a meal and read for half an hour. Any law books would have to wait for another day.
The thick, mahogany door was slightly ajar, so she knocked and pushed it open without waiting for a reply. The room, obviously his secretary's, was empty. Jessica glanced around it, unconsciously noting that it was larger than most of the top directors' offices she had been into in her lifetime, if a little lacking in character. A comfortable, functional room that spoke of high-octane efficiency and an ability to get on with the job without distraction.
She strode purposefully towards a further interconnecting door, knocked and, without thinking, pushed it open. He had been expecting her, hadn't he?
Obviously not, because he was not alone, and his companion was not a fellow senior worker who might have popped in for a five-minute chat. Not unless his fellow senior workers resembled Barbie dolls.
âIâI'm sorry,' Jessica stammered, embarrassed, âI had no idea that I was interrupting...'
Bruno looked not in the least disconcerted by her abrupt arrival. His female companion, however, clearly didn't welcome the intrusion. She turned from where she was half sitting on his desk and looked at Jessica with no attempt to disguise her annoyance.
âYou could have knocked,' was her opening line. Her voice, high and girlish, matched the rest of her. She was the perfect male fantasy package. Jessica acknowledged that without a trace of envy. Petite, curvy, with full breasts bursting out of a tight-fitting, long-sleeved top, a skirt that was short enough to leave little to the imagination, and high shoes, which had been discarded. The blonde hair hung in curls past her shoulders and her face was angelic, even if the expression on it wasn't.
âI didn't expect...' Jessica began, not quite knowing where to go from there.
âYou never said that your so-called meeting was with a woman!' the girl accused Bruno, pouting.
âI think it's time you left, Rachel,' he said, patting her arm to encourage her off the desk.
âBut we need to talk! You promised!' She wriggled unhappily off the desk and stepped into her shoes. Her face was a mixture of frustration and pleading.
âPerhaps you could come over to my place when you're finished here.' She turned to Jessica. âYou won't be long, will you?'
âNo, I don't planâ'
âClose the door behind you after you leave, Rachel,' Bruno interrupted, swerving back behind the desk and tapping into his computer.
Oh, charming, Jessica thought Was this how he treated all his women? She edged into the room, uncomfortably watching as the dismissed blonde stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind her, then she sat down facing him and placed a sheaf of papers on the desk between them.
âI won't keep you,' she said icily. âI had rather planned one or two things this evening...'
âOh, really? What?' He looked up from the computer with a mildly curious expression.
This was not what she had expected. Fool that she was, she had anticipated some sort of apology, if only for the sake of politeness.
TV, a microwave dinner and an early night did not seem the appropriate admission. However, she could not bring herself to tell an outright lie. Instead, she said, âI need to consult a couple of references in some law books at home...'
âAnother fascinating hobby of yours, is it?' The blue eyes glinted with sardonic humour. âI shudder to think what your dull moments are comprised of.'
Oh, what a keen sense of humour, she thought acidly, excuse me if I don't fall off my chair laughing.
How could she have forgotten quite how irritating the man was?
âI've read every detail of the case that's being put forward,' she said, ignoring his remark completely and tapping the sheaf of papers on the desk. âAnd I've highlighted the areas we particularly need to concentrate on.'
He obligingly picked up the lot, scanned through them, replaced them on the desk and asked her if she had eaten.
âI beg your pardon?'
âHave you eaten? Had dinner? Consumed food within the last three hours?'
âI know what you mean,' Jessica snapped, âI just have no idea why you're asking.'
âIt's late. I think we might just as well go out for a quick bite. We can go through all this tomorrow when we're feeling more alert.'
âYou're kidding, aren't you?' But he didn't seem to be. She watched, bewildered, as he strolled across to the two-seater sofa by the bookshelf, picked up his jacket and slung it on, followed by a camel-coloured trenchcoat.
âThere's a good Italian just around the corner. I can always get a table there.' He stopped to look at her. âComing?'
âThis is ridiculous,' Jessica spluttered, getting to her feet and feeling utterly manipulated as she shoved all the paperwork back into her briefcase. âWith all due respect, this has been a pointless exercise for me.'
âOh, I don't know,' he mused, eyebrows raised, âa meal out is surely more fun than looking up a few legal references...'
âI would say that depends entirely on the company involved,' she muttered stiffly.
âIf it's any consolation, we'll talk business for the duration of the meal. How about that?' His phoney, soothing tone of voice got on her nerves even more, and she took a few deep breaths and controlled her temper.
âI'm not dressed for a meal out,' she pointed out, because a wayward thought had suddenly crossed her mind: she didn't want to be alone with Bruno Carr unless there was the reassuring presence of files, desks and computers around.
âOh, I don't know.' He gave her a leisurely look. âI'm sure Gino has witnessed the sight of a working woman in a suit before. This is the twentieth century, after all, as you were so adamant about pointing out the last time we met.'
He opened the door, stood aside, and she brushed past him with a lofty expression. Diplomacy is the better part of valour, she told herself on the way down in the lift. She was doing this because he was her boss and refusing point-blank was hardly a tactful manoeuvre. If any other man had treated her with such high-handed arrogance, she would have dismissed him on the spot.
That was a comforting thought.
They walked quickly and in silence to the restaurant. In this part of London, there were fewer people about. There were no trendy boutiques to attract the shoppers and not enough fashionable clubs to entice the young and the beautiful.
It was also too cold for dawdling. Within ten minutes they were at the restaurant, which was surprisingly full with an after-work crowd, but the proprietor immediately recognised Bruno and showed them to a table in the furthest corner of the place.
It occurred to Jessica that his girlfriend, or lover, or whoever the small, well-endowed blonde was, would not be impressed to find that his important business meeting had translated itself into a meal at the local Italian.
A suspicious thought began playing at the back of her mind, but she lost it as they were handed menus and the dishes of the day were explained with elaborate, Mediterranean flamboyance.